First Ward Councilwoman Theresa Castellano and 3rd Ward Councilman Michael Russo, who are running for re-election to the nine-member City Council this May 8, complained about a misleading flyer handed near by the local ShopRite last weekend. The flyer came from the joint campaigns of 1st Ward candidate Ron Rosenberg and 3rd Ward candidate Frank "Pupie" Raia.
The flyer said, "Save Our ShopRite! Stop Michael Russo!"
The flyer, which appeared to be in the tradition of past Hoboken political flyers that would accuse other candidates of trying to take away public housing or other amenities, did not actually explain why Michael Russo would be any sort of threat to the ShopRite.
At the press conference, Castellano also asked why Rosenberg, who has supported campaign finance reform that cuts down on developers contributing to political campaigns, shares a campaign fund with Raia, a real estate developer in town.
Mayor David Roberts, who is endorsing Raia and Rosenberg, was not present for the war of words.
Raia and Rosenberg responded by saying that while Raia had recently put $5,000 in their joint campaign fund, he took it back out a week ago.
Russo vs. Raia
Michael Russo, who is the son of former Mayor Anthony Russo, noted that Frank Raia's campaign against him included the distribution of leaflets outside the local ShopRite last weekend that read, "Save our ShopRite! Stop Michael Russo!"
The ShopRite is actually not in Russo's ward, and has already been built, so some might wonder how Russo could pose a threat to it.
Actually, the flyers were referring to a letter from Russo in another publication last week, in which Russo criticized Raia for building the ShopRite allegedly without making improvements to the surrounding infrastructure. Russo charged that perhaps this contributed to the massive flooding last week. However, while Russo pledged in the letter to stop what he called "overdevelopment" by people like Raia, he did not say anything in the letter about the ShopRite being an example of such overdevelopment.
"Pupie Raia has done nothing but lie to the public," Russo said. "He claims to have built a supermarket in Hoboken. The fact is, he had no other choice. He was bound by his redevelopment agreement and still profits from that land, in addition to the luxury condos he built in the northwest section of town."
Raia responded that the ShopRite was part of a proposal he offered, which the city accepted, and that he was never forced into building the ShopRite.
But why did he hand out a flyer that implied that Michael Russo threatened the ShopRite?
When asked this question, Raia responded that he didn't think that the flyer implied that.
When pressed, Raia said, "I think that's your opinion. I can't control what's in your head."
Raia's public relations spokesperson, Jack Bohrer, later commented, "If [Russo] could shut down ShopRite, he would."
However, Russo said last week that he was never against the construction of the ShopRite, nor does he want it shut down.
Raia added that he gets projects done, and Russo does not.
"[Russo's] playing this smoke and mirrors game, and it's not going to work this time," Raia said. "In four years, [Russo] delivered no parking, no affordable housing, and no open space in the 3rd Ward. He's a talker, not a doer."
Can a developer fund himself?
When Castellano introduced the press conference on Tuesday, she said she was exposing what "may be an illegal act committed by Ron Rosenberg and Frank Raia."
Castellano then referred to the fact that the candidates had filed blank ELEC reports, which are state campaign financing reports.
In response to the councilwoman's charges, Rosenberg said that when the first ELEC report was required, which was 29 days prior to the election, there were no campaign funds or expenditures put into Raia and Rosenberg's joint account.
Rosenberg added that later, Raia contributed $5,000 of his own money to the joint account. However, the week before the press conference, Raia removed the funds, so their joint account now has "not a single penny" from Raia.
Rosenberg said the account now has only Rosenberg's money, and friends' donations.
Castellano charged that Rosenberg and Raia's reluctance to reveal their campaign finances was because it could be perceived as a violation of the recently passed "pay to play" reform ordinances that limit developer contributions to candidates.
The ordinances were put forth by the People for Open Government (POG), a non-partisan political committee dedicated to promoting open transparent government. They are an attempt to control the influence companies have over politicians when it comes to contracts being awarded.
Eric Kurta, who is the president of POG, took a leave of absence from POG to be Rosenberg's campaign manager.
"Mr. Rosenberg and Mr. Kurta are running a political campaign financed by Mr. Raia, an admitted developer," Castellano claimed. "This is an insult to all Hoboken residents who supported the effort to reform campaign funding on a local level."
Rosenberg said that the withdrawal of the $5,000 from the account stemmed from a mutual agreement between both candidates that Rosenberg would bear the financial burden this time around, since Raia funded much of a previous campaign in which the two took part two years ago.
Castellano noted that recently, Rosenberg and Raia changed their campaign literature from "Paid for by Raia and Rosenberg for Hoboken Council" to "Paid for by Rosenberg for Hoboken Council."
Rosenberg attributed it to a printing error.
Rosenberg also pointed out that his campaign literature included the required documentation as to who was providing the funding, and Russo and Castellano's literature does not always display that documentation. Rosenberg presented one piece of pro-Castellano literature that didn't display funding information.
Kurta and Raia respond
The pay-to-play reform ordinance, according to Kurta, prohibits developers who are negotiating for or redeveloping within specially designated city zones, from contributing to local candidates or political parties, in an attempt to reduce businesses' influence over politicians' decisions.
It is true that Raia is currently involved in a contract with the city in a designated redevelopment zone, which he entered into during the 1990s. But because he is not financing anyone's campaign right now, it is a non-issue, said Kurta.
He added that the ordinance does not preclude a developer from running for elected office.
Regarding his decision to be Rosenberg's campaign manager, Kurta said that he did so not as a representative of POG, but rather as a friend who agreed with the candidate's policy to achieve an open and transparent municipal government.
Another issue Russo raised is Raia's interest in the former mercury-contaminated site at 720 Grand St., a property located in the 3rd Ward that was purchased from the Environmental Protection Agency earlier this year by a development firm in which Raia is a partner.
According to Raia, the property is not located within a redevelopment zone right now. He added that his intention to build a much-needed senior building in Hoboken was not a violation of the pay-to-play reform ordinance or a conflict of interest, being that he is running for an elected office.
Rosenberg goes after Castellano
Taking the offensive after the press conference, Rosenberg asked why Castellano did not demand that her cousin, former Mayor Anthony Russo, promptly pay the money he owes Hoboken, which Rosenberg said any other private citizen who owed the city money would have to do.
As a result of pleading guilty to taking bribes in the summer of 2005 to a federal judge, Anthony Russo owes money to Hoboken, which Rosenberg approximated at $300,000.
"Why aren't you asking for the money back, Terry?" said Rosenberg.
In response, Castellano said Rosenberg was misinformed, and that the former mayor, who is currently serving time in prison, is paying off his debt monthly.
According to Hoboken's Business Administrator Richard England, the former mayor has been paying $300 per month for approximately two years. England was unable to confirm how much the former mayor owes the city. "I wish he'd stick to the issues and not delve into the past," Castellano said. "If he wants to attack me, he should attack me on my record and what he thinks I should have done differently over the past 12 years, not on family issues."
Michael Mullins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.